I NEARLY met Conor Faughnan recently.
The two of us were in TodayFM’s building at one and the same time. In the same room, even. Actually at the same table, albeit with several others present.
It was the several others factor that inhibited me. I wanted to tell Conor Faughnan that he has the crispest broadcasting diction in the country, that he breathes like an opera singer and manages data like Einstein.
But announcing all that to a total stranger in the presence of six others could get you arrested, so instead I offered no more than a distant nod. Pity. After the last four days, it would have been so good to claim to be on first name terms with him and he warning about the latest road to be closed, the most recent exit ramp to be blocked, while begging motorists not to be complete morons driving into floods 6ft deep as if their cars were built like that Viking Splash amphibian vessel/vehicle.
Not that he used the word "moron". He did, however, sound particularly wistful when confiding that two AA vans had been stuck for the previous two hours in one location. It sounded like he had an intimate but quite proper relationship with each of the vans and was upset for both. You could almost hear the nation going "aaah" in sympathetic appreciation.
Faughnan does have the advantage of heading a bunch of guys who carry permanent hero status. Everybody likes the AA rescuers. They always arrive sooner than their ETA. They always solve the problem. They’re always courteous, even though they must be bored rigid doing routine rescues that hardly stretch them at all. Out in all weathers they are, and not a peep of complaint out of them. You never hear AA operatives talking to Joe and making a big moan about unsocial hours or filthy weather. They’d wreck the positive view of them held by the public if they ever whinged.
When the AA folk arrive, we develop a warm glow and a disproportionate sense of gratitude.
In the grip of that gratitude, I once tried to give an AA man a bottle of wine. Not a good idea, as it turned out. His eyes and lips narrowed simultaneously. It seemed as though I couldn’t have insulted him more if I’d suggested his granny regularly involved herself in threesomes.
His ethical outrage was such, he had whistleblower written all over him. I was afraid to answer the door for days in case Josephine Feehily from the Revenue was out there, ready to indict me and double my property tax as punishment.
The AA, firefighters, ambulance paramedics and gardaí are expected to get out in weather like we’ve had for the last few days and make nice while they’re at it. Because that’s their job. Nobody in their right mind would do it voluntarily. Except, of course, that one group DOES do it voluntarily, that group made up of people at the other end of the approval continuum: Politicians and would-be politicians.
For the last 10 days, nearly a dozen contenders in the Meath East by-election have been out in the sleet and the snow, dodging potholes and puddles the size and depth of Lough Neagh.
They’ve walked miles through farmland and housing estates, gloves off and frozen paws ready for the handshakes that are essential when the homeowner responds to them knocking on the door (or, as one radio commentator last week put it, "knocking on the doorsteps," which sounded gratuitously painful).
They have been joined by their party leaders and other senior party people, and each has learned to stand modestly by while Micheál Martin, Eamon Gilmore, Enda Kenny or Gerry Adams describes them as the bright hope for a better future.
By now, they’re exhausted, and not just from the long days in horrible conditions. Each of them — particularly the four front-runners — has been dealing with constant anxiety, too.
Constant and varied anxiety, starting with terror of encountering a Rottweiler with anger-management issues and working up to dread of meeting a constituent with anger-management issues related to economic meltdown, being told they can’t have skiing holidays until they pay off the bank, or the current condition of their septic tank.
Piled on top of the fear of meeting a constituent who’s a good talker with a bad temper is the worry that a newspaper journalist will be around, researching a colour piece when the constituent lets fly and will share every word of their diatribe with the nation the following day, accompanying it with a shot of the candidate looking mortified. As well as wet, cold and tired.
Roger Ailes, now president of Fox News, who, once upon a mis-spent middle age gave media advice to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, maintains that media, when they cover political campaigns, are interested in only three things: Pictures, mistakes and attacks.
This particular by-election has generated rather more of the first than of the other two. The pictures have tended to favour Helen McEntee, as pictures of politicians always favour women. It’s the ladybird phenomenon. Female candidates may be part of a despised species — in the case of ladybirds, they’re insects, after all, and insects don’t do well in the nature ratings — but within that species they’re an interesting minority wearing bright clothes. Hence their doing better in photographs.
ATTACKS have been pretty constant and largely unproductive. Sinn Féin has got dug out of Labour. Sinn Féin and Labour have got dug out of Fianna Fáil. Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have attacked the Government, and Eoin Holmes, the Labour candidate, has tried to buttress his party brand, his line being that if you think things are bad as a result of Government policies, you wouldn’t believe how awful those policies would have been if Labour hadn’t been in there, preventing Fine Gael from going completely native.
Mistakes in a by-election take two forms. The first is the publication of a photograph or document involving a candidate, which is seen as damaging to that candidate. The nearest we’ve come to that, so far, was the revelation that Thomas Byrne was once praised by Bertie Ahern in a video online. Which isn’t really a crippling blow, particularly early in the campaign.
The other mistake happens when a media interviewer, replete with research, demands of a candidate, live on air, some question like what Ireland’s GDP was last Tuesday and the candidate goes wide-eyed with ignorance or — worse — makes a guess and gets it wrong.
These are the fears and complications that dog all of the candidates currently out in Meath East and will dog them until polling day. Once the results are counted, 10 of them will go home to get comfortably miserable, and one will join a profession that’s about as popular as the plague.
These three weeks have to add up to the toughest job interview process known.
Every last one of them deserves a medal.
Being out on the road for the AA is cushy, by comparison.